The Network of Women in Media, India, and 25 other individuals on Friday said they were deeply concerned about the trend of “powerful men seeking gag orders on the media in sexual assault and harassment cases”.

They were referring to actor Dileep obtaining a gag order from a court in Kerala, after proceedings began in a case of sexual assault filed against him by an actor from the state. In September, Dileep had filed a petition in the Ernakulam court for action against 10 media houses for allegedly violating the gag order. He had allegedly committed the sexual assault in a moving vehicle in 2017.

The signatories of the statement said that Dileep has allegedly been trying to influence and intimidate witnesses, due to which the prosecution has sought cancellation of his bail. Many witnesses who testified against Dileep later turned hostile, the signatories said quoting a media report. “Meanwhile, the accused has served legal notices on several Malayalam film personalities who wrote social media posts about witnesses in the case changing their testimonies,” they said.

“We stand in solidarity with survivors of sexual harassment and assault,” the signatories said on Friday. “While prioritising the privacy and dignity of survivors above all else, we believe that responsible reporting of broad facts in rape trials is in the interests of justice. This pattern of seeking gag orders against reportage in such cases by the accused has now become a trend...”

The women’s collective said that when sexual harassment allegations surfaced in the media against a politician in March 2019, he obtained a temporary injunction from a Bengaluru Sessions Court banning 49 media outlets from publishing anything “defamatory” or “derogatory” against him. The Karnataka High Court set aside the injunction in April 2019.

“In July 2020, the Delhi High Court lifted its 2017 gag order restraining publication of articles and comments on sexual harassment allegations against a Mumbai-based venture capitalist,” the signatories said. “In 2014, the Delhi High Court had issued a gag order on publication and telecast of a law intern’s sexual harassment complaint against a former Supreme Court judge.”

The signatories said that the weight of public opinion and the role played by responsible media coverage has helped exert pressure on governments and the police to take action against the perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault. “Clearly, there can be no public opinion if there is no information in the public realm,” they said. “We believe this is why powerful accused are increasingly trying to suppress the social media and news media, in a scenario where most systems are already weighted heavily in their favour.”

The women’s collective said that while there was a need for in-camera rape trials, there is a provision in Section 327(3) of the Criminal Procedure Code that allows limited media coverage of in-camera trials with the court’s consent.

  “We appreciate the vigilance of courts against irresponsible journalism, but urge that responsible, sensitive reporting of basic facts such as witnesses not turning up, witnesses retracting previous statements, hostile behaviour of the accused against the survivor and so on, should be allowed in the public interest and in the interests of the victim/survivor.”

— The Network of Women in Media, India

The signatories said that Section 327 of the Criminal Procedure Code and Section 228A of the Indian Penal Code (which protects the identity of the complainant) were provisions enacted by Parliament to protect the rights, interests and privacy of women complainants, and should not be used by the accused to silence the media or the complainants.

“We believe that blanket gag orders are harmful to survivors and benefit accused in our patriarchal society,” they said. “We urge media houses that are sought to be silenced by such gag orders, petitions and defamation suits, to respond, challenge and contest the same in court. We urge media houses to continue to report vigilantly and responsibly as they have in such cases, without succumbing to fear or intimidatory tactics.”